Our trip through the western Rockies took us next to Yellowstone National Park. The oldest national park in the United States (and, for that matter, the whole world), Yellowstone spawls across three different states at roughly 3500 square miles / 9000 square kilometers in size. The national park was established by an act of Congress in 1872, and ever since it has played host to visitors from around the world who come to see the wildlife and the spectacular natural scenery. Yellowstone is the North American version of the Serengeti, and it's one of the very few accessible places to see meagafauna in their natural habitats. As if that wasn't enough, most of Yellowstone also sits inside the crater of an ancient supervolcano, and the whole region is full of hot springs and geysers. We would be spending three days in total in Yellowstone National Park, with this page covering the first day in the park and a visit to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Just getting to Yellowstone National Park would be a bit of an adventure unto itself. We were leaving from Sheridan, Wyoming and most of the trip west to the park would be taking place on state roads that didn't handle a lot of traffic. Almost immediately after leaving Sheridan we would need to cross over the Bighorn Mountains on a series of switchback roads, then drive through the arid basin on the other side which was almost completely empty of towns. Then we would have to cross another range of mountains that formed the eastern edge of the park before driving down into the caldera where the central Yellowstone Lake is located. This was going to be an entertaining scenic drive just to reach the park.
We didn't spent long on Interstate 90 before taking an exit onto local Route 14 heading west. After passing through the little hamlet of Dayton, we reached the foot of the Bighorns and began climbing upwards along a series of steep hairpin turns. I didn't have my camera out at this point and you'll have to take my word for it on the rapid elevation change. We rode along at the top of the ridge for a little while, with snow visible in patches underneath some of the trees, and then made an equally harrowing descent down the other side. This time we were following the path of a natural canyon and I was able to snap a few images on the way down. This side of the mountains clearly had a drier climate, with little in the way of trees clinging to the slopes as we descended. The valley on the other side seemed to have a semi-arid climate, with vegetation following the course of the rivers but everything else dry and dusty.
I had to include this image. We stopped in the tiny settlement of Greybull (population 1800) to get a drink, and I saw this flier posted on a local bulletin board. It was an advertisement selling milk cows, along with bull breeding services and assistance for the first time cow purchaser. I guess that this is totally normal in a small rural farming community, the kind of environment where I'm woefully ignorant of what takes place. Needless to say, I would never see anything like this in the suburban parts of Washington DC where I live. Stumbling across little tidbits like this are part of what makes traveling so much fun.
The only town of any size in this part of Wyoming was Cody, home to a population of just under 10,000 people and the only airport in the area that services Yellowstone National Park. Cody is best known for the rodeos that the town puts on every summer, and while the boast of being the "Rodeo Capital of the World" is a bit of an exaggeration, the Stampede Park does draw crowds in the tens of thousands each year to see the show. There's a lot of focus on "Buffalo Bill" Cody, the namesake of the town, and the individual commemorated in the statue pictured above. There are several different museums devoted to him that cater to the tourist trade coming to the area and heading onward to Yellowstone. We did not stop in Cody and continued to drive further to the west, with the landscape becoming increasingly rugged as we proceeded. We were heading up into the mountains again and approaching the eastern boundary of the park.
Finally we reached Yellowstone National Park itself around noon. There was a big sign at the entrance where I captured a picture of this smiling random family of people. (This was not us - we are Orioles fans, not Yankees fans.) After that, the road continued taking us on a path through beautiful mountainous scenery. The eastern edge of the park has the highest elevations, and some of these peaks in the Absaroka Range stretched above 10,000 feet elevation. That was more than high enough to keep them crowned with fields of snow even here in the middle of summer. We spotted small trickles of water running along the sides of the road, formed by the ongoing melt of the snow at higher elevations as it dropped down to the lower reaches below. We were already enjoying the scenery immensely and we had barely even entered the park.
Then we spotted this guy walking along the side of the road. It was a male bison off by himself, completely unconcerned that he was striding along the main entrance highway into Yellowstone. We slowed down the car to get a good look and the bison barely even acknowledged us as we inched past. If you've never seen a bison up close, these animals are ENORMOUS in person. This particular bull was close to 10 feet / 3 meters in length and likely weighed about a metric ton (2200 pounds). I think it was the casual encounter with this particular bison that was so exciting, the way that the animal treated this as nothing out of the ordinary. We weren't on a specific wildlife expedition here, we were just driving along a road and still managed to get an up-close encounter with a massive creature. These are the kind of experiences that you can only get in a place like Yellowstone.
The eastern route into Yellowstone Park eventually took us past Yellowstone Lake, which is located in the south-central part of the park's boundaries. This is one of the largest high elevation lakes in North America, situated at approximately 7700 feet / 2350 meters above sea level. Yellowstone Lake is located near the center of the caldera of the supervolcano that sits underneath the park, and there are hot springs that poke through at some of the edges of the water. Due to the high elevation, the lake is frozen over with ice for long periods of the year. Here in the summer there were some tourists out boating and fishing in the lake, which had very cold water when we stuck a toe inside. We had lunch at the cafeteria in the nearby general store at Fishing Bridge along the northern shores of the lake. It was packed inside and this is something that any visitor to Yellowstone in the summer will quickly encounter: crowds of people. We were visiting in the middle of the week instead of the weekend, but there was still bad traffic on the park roads much of the time.
We were heading north from Yellowstone Lake along the park road when we ran into a whole herd of bison, several dozen of them together. In fact there were so many of them that traffic had completely backed up and blocked the road moving forward. With nowhere to go, we hopped out of the car and headed over to take a closer look at some of the animals. We were able to close the distance to as near as 50 feet / 15 meters from some of the young males off by themselves as they chomped down on the grasses in the meadow. While these bison weren't quite as large as the solitary one that we had seen on the roadside earlier, they were still huge beasts and we were close enough to see the shedding of their winter coats in great detail. I want to be clear about something: getting this close to large wild animals always carries some degree of risk. Tourists are badly injured and even killed every year by bison in the park, largely for doing stupid things like getting too close to the animals. I was trying to be careful to keep some of the trees in between myself and the bison but wild animals are wild and will do unpredictable things. There's always some degree of risk involved in doing things like this.
Then the herd decided to start moving. Some kind of signal passed between the bison and they began crossing to the other side of the road en masse. This was the most dangerous moment, particularly since the bison calves were traveling along with their parents and the animals are understandably protective of them. I was frozen in place by this movement from the herd; it may be tough to see from the pictures, but there were bison crossing the road on both sides of me, in front of me and behind me. I couldn't have run away if I wanted to. Some of the other tourists can be seen in the corners of these images, and we were all way too close to the bison. I would not have put myself in this position on purpose! There were bison passing by as close as 20 feet / 6 meters distant, close enough that I could have walked up and touched them if I had been stupid enough to try it. Eventually the herd passed on without any incident, and the traffic began to flow again along the park road. It was all a little bit more exciting than I had bargained for.
The next place where we stopped was a little bit upstream from the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, at this bridge known as Chittenden Memorial Bridge. This was one of the earlier structures to be completed in the park, with the rough first bridge going up in 1903 and this more modern bridge dating from the 1960s. This particular part of the Yellowstone River passed through a series of rapids, with the water churning into a series of white froth as it passed through the narrow rock gap underneath the bridge. There would be much more dramatic sights a little ways downstream in the canyon itself.
But before we arrived, we spotted another large animal off in the distance munching on some grasses. This looked to be a solitary male elk, one of the thousands and thousands of the animals roaming through the park's boundaries. These animals were hunted to near-extinction in large parts of the United States, however they managed to survive in Yellowstone and have made a major comeback in recent decades. The Rocky Mountain elks are now back to being a common sight again, which is good news for just about everyone.
Nearby was this viewing platform looking down a the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River. Chittenden Memorial Bridge was visible in the background a little bit upstream, and in this spot the water fell away in a drop of 110 feet / 33 meters to the rocks below. This is one of only two major waterfalls in the area, with the taller Lower Falls downstream leading into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. We could see the edge of the canyon off to our right from this viewing platform, with the trees clinging to the side of the canyon walls blocking the view. A short drive of about half a mile took us to the famous overlook spot known as Artist Point:
This is one of the best spots to take a picture anyone in the park, the scenic overlook at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The views here are absolutely stunning, and it's hard to believe when driving through the forests of Yellowstone that there's this massive canyon to be found nearby. The canyon has been carved out of the landscape by the passage of the Yellowstone River for thousands and thousands of years, to the point that the canyon is now roughly 1000 feet / 300 meters deep and about half a mile (nearly a full kilometer across) depending on the location. The initial Europeans to come through the region were shocked at what they found, and the descriptions and photographs of the Grand Canyon played an instrumental role in designating Yellowstone as the first nation park. The varying colors in the rocks are caused by oxidation; in effect, the canyon is "rusting" and changing color over time as it does so. With the Lower Falls in the background to cap off the scene, it's hard to imagine a more beautiful natural vista.
We took a couple of pictures with our family here at Artist Point. That's me with my brother pictured above; I'm the one on the left in the blue jacket. There was a light rain intermittently falling during the afternoon, and this was one of the periods where the rain was coming down. It wasn't enough to spoil the moment though, and this was one of the highlights of our trip.
Speaking of more wildlife, as we were leaving the parking lot at Artist Point we stumbled upon this creature: a wolf! I've gone back and compared this picture to images of gray wolves on the Internet, and yes, this was definitely a wolf with black fur. Although we weren't close enough to determine the gender of the animal, the fact that this wolf was off by itself suggests that it was probably male. They will grow on average to a size of about 110 pounds / 50 kilograms, and the animal that we saw certainly looked like a very large dog. It quickly wandered away from the parking lot and vanished into the forest in search of food. We were having fantastic luck with spotting animals thus far. If we could just see a bear at some point, we'd have the full checklist of the top tourist wildlife attractions.
We had seen the southern edge of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and now we circled around to take in the views from the northern rim as well. Fortunately this is a lot easier to do in Yellowstone than it is at the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The main viewing platform on this side was known as Inspiration Point, and it had a much steeper set of stairs leading down to a dangling platform that leaned out over the edge of the canyon. The view from Artist Point on the southern rim is the more famous spot, and there were far fewer tourists to contend with here. The weather had already changed in the short period of time that it took to drive around to the other side, and now the sun was breaking through the mostly cloudy sky to create patches of light and shadow. The overall effect was to give these photographs a somewhat different look than the ones from Artist Point, and I particularly like the contrast between the bright sunshine in the foreground with the dark storm clouds overhead in the second picture above. It was well worth stopping here.
Since we were in the area, we backtracked a little bit on the park road and stopped to visit the Mud Volcano area next. This is one of the hot springs locations in the park, where the staff have constructed a wooden walkway that runs in a short circle past a series of bubbling and steaming hydrothermal pools. While this wasn't one of the more famous hot spring areas in Yellowstone, we nonetheless enjoyed taking the short hike along the trail that ran through this region. The wooden walkway was necessary because was the ground was extremely hot near some of these pools, with the water emerging at boiling temperatures from within the earth. It also smelled terrible here, with the sulphurous stink of rotten eggs sitting heavy upon the air. The bison didn't seem to mind the smell though, and the herd that we had seen earlier was congregating near one of the steaming pools of water. They were laying out on the ground like it was a beach day for tanning. I've seen pictures of the bison congregating around the hot springs in the winter to stay warm when there's snow everywhere, and apparently they enjoy it enough to spend time here in the summer as well.
Sticking with the hot springs theme for the moment, we also stopped at the Norris Geyser Basin as we continued to drive along the park road. The Norris Geyser area is located due west of the Grand Canyon, and it was a natural place to stop as we continued making our way towards our hotel destination for the night. The Norris Geyser Basin is located at a point where three underground faults meet together, and as a result it's the hottest geyser area in the park. There were lots of signs repeatedly insisting not to stray off the wooden paths due to the risk of injury from the extremely hot water. The tallest active geyser in the world (Steamboat Geyser) is also located here, although it's extremely erratic in its eruptions and can go more than a year without spouting off. Needless to say, we did not see it erupt. I was struck by the brilliant blue and green colors in the mineral-laden water of the pools here, which could turn yellow and orange in other places due to the algae and bacteria that feed off of the minerals. It was also shocking how fast the weather systems changed while we were walking around the basin. The sky went from picturesque in the first image to dark and foreboding in the last one in the span of maybe 15 minutes. We would have spent longer here but had to cut the trip short due to the impending dourpour. We barely managed to get back to the car in time to avoid being soaked.
More wildlife spotting: on the drive out of the park, we saw a series of cars pulled over to the side of the road. One of the individuals with binoculars pointed out that there was a bald eagle up in one of the trees. I zoomed in as best I could with my camera and verified that yes, it was indeed a bald eagle off in the distance. This camera was too weak to capture more than a blurry image at this range and I wish that I'd owned my current camera back then. Still, this was yet another famous animal that we'd manage to see in our first day in Yellowstone.
We spent the next two nights staying in the town of West Yellowstone. This is the closest town to the park, situated just across the state border of Montana near the western entrance to Yellowstone. If you look at West Yellowstone on a map, the streets literally run right up to the edge of the protected park land, with a road running along the park line itself called "Boundary Road". Naturally West Yellowstone largely exists to host and feed the tourists who come to visit the park, and we were very much part of that group. We ate dinner at a place named Beartooth Barbeque that specialized in bison meat burgers and it was absolutely delicious. This was not a fancy town and West Yellowstone generally seemed to cater to families and outdoors types. There wasn't too much in the way of luxury accomodations here; West Yellowstone was not a resort town like Aspen or Banff. Since we pretty much just needed a place to sleep in the evenings, it was plenty good enough.
We still had two more days to spend in Yellowstone, with the goal of visiting some more of the hot springs and geyseys before we were done. We wanted to visit Old Faithful, of course, and continue to do some further hiking in the hopes of spotting more wildlife. The next page of this trip looks at Yellowstone: Part Two.